After a moment of silent inhalations and exhalations, she finished, in a very small voice, "Are you sure it's a good idea?"
"Frankly, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore said, "if we thought there was any other way, we would take it." He toyed with something on his desk. "Please understand that this is, of course, entirely up to you. Your choice. If you don't feel you can do it, we shall find another way."
"I..." Ginny stared intently down at her pale, clenched hands in her lap. "I... I'm not of age." She looked up at the headmaster. "I'm not of age! You'll have to speak to my parents about it!"
"Professor McGonagall is taking care of that as we speak," Dumbledore assured her.
"Oh," she said. "Oh, no. I just know what Mum's going to say."
"I guess I shouldn't have added all the stinksap at once," said Ron. He had bits of the potion all over his face. The greeny-amber color of it clashed horribly with his red hair.
"Or else it was too much sulphur," replied Harry philosophically, scrubbing energetically at the desk. "At least your school robes aren't burnt. I'm all holes down the front." He spoke in an undertone, aware of the brooding menace sitting at the teacher's desk, ostensibly grading papers.
"I think your potion evolved methane," muttered Hermione, who was aiming Cleansing Charms at everything she could reach. "I have no idea how you managed it."
"We're cursed," said Ron, tipping the cauldron up and reeling back involuntarily at the reek from its interior. "This stuff's like glue," he added, prying at the mess with his fingernails.
"Give that here," said Harry, reaching for his wand.
"Ron," said Hermione. "If you'll move off that chair you're kneeling on, I'll charm it clean."
A merry little succession of popping noises, not unlike a great many bottles of butterbeer opening all at once, caused the three of them to pause in their labors and stare toward the front of the classroom. The cheerful sound was completely unexpected for the Potions classroom, but even more so was the succession of pastel-colored, iridescent bubbles rising from Professor Snape's desk.
Professor's Snape's expression of outrage would have been funny, thought Harry, if it weren't a little alarming to think what he might-- no, scratch that. It was funny, and damn the consequences.
As the last and largest bubble popped, a pale-green, outsized envelope appeared on the corner of the desk from which the bubbles had appeared. Old-fashioned, loopy handwriting on it declared:
"To Professor Snape. A Missive From the Headmaster Not Regarding Croquet In Any Manner Whatsoever."
Snape stared at the letter as though he expected it to cover him in colorful bubbles, then snatched it up, picking up a small sharp dicing knife in the other hand. He slit open the envelope, removed the letter, and instead of reading it, directed a pointed glare over the unfolded paper at the three students who were still staring, gape-mouthed, at this extremely interesting performance.
Ron and Harry knocked heads as they both attempted to dive into the cauldron they were scrubbing. Hermione missed Ron's chair altogether, but hit one of Harry's shoes with her charm, whereupon it became shinier than it had been all year. Or all last year for that matter.
Ginny felt rather breathless. She always felt a little breathless when her mother was in the room, but it was particularly fierce right now. Dumbledore was shaking hands with Dad, and Mum and McGonagall were chatting amiably over Ginny's head, and Ginny herself was rather stunned that the words, "I'll do it, of course," had somehow emerged from her mouth.
It was... pretty romantic, really. Romantic. Romance.
Ginny stood up abruptly, almost but not quite knocking McGonagall's hat off. She exclaimed, "I need a dress!" She turned to her mother and repeated urgently, "I need a dress!"
Then there was no time to breathe. There was a great scramble around the room, and much waving of wands. Her mother insisted on charming Ginny's hair into a particularly awkward crownlike arrangement, and, as there was no time to go anywhere, Ginny's robes had to be changed to the appropriate shade and fabric. McGonagall helped, of course, once Ginny had her bunched handful of lemon drops and taffies, and the latest detention list draped modestly over her head.
"There you are!" McGonagall said at last. "Miss Weasley, you are, I assure you, quite fetching."
"Oh!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed upon stepping back and looking at Ginny. She burst into tears on Mr. Weasley's second-best robes. "My little girl!" she wailed... well, would have wailed, had she not been muffled by the tweed.
"There there, dear," Mr. Weasley said, patting his wife's back. "You look a treat, Ginny."
Ginny inhaled and exhaled, then looked at Dumbledore. "So," she said, her voice not entirely steady. "When do we... do this?"
Dumbledore smiled upon her. "He'll be along shortly, dear."
Professor Snape seemed absorbed by the missive from Dumbledore while Harry, Ron, and Hermione frantically cleaned potion mess off a surprising number of surfaces. At this point, the three of them just wanted out of the classroom as quickly as possible.
What on earth could Dumbledore have to say to him? Harry wondered. Judging by the scowl, it was nothing good. "Here, can you have a shot at this?" he asked Hermione, tipping the cauldron towards her.
She fired a last spell at it, and whispered, "Don't look up and maybe Professor Snape won't notice what you did to the ceiling."
Ron involuntarily glanced up, then hunched his shoulders guiltily at the mini-stalactites of hardened potion over their heads. Fortunately, Snape was reading the note from Dumbledore for the sixth or seventh time and didn't notice.
"Done," muttered Harry, clanging the cauldron back into place. "Let's be off. I don't like the look of that."
All three of them glanced nervously at the desk at the front of the classroom, but there were no explosions or bubbles. "I've never seen him so distracted," murmured Hermione.
"Just as well, really," replied Ron.
They picked up their bags and tiptoed-- well, Hermione tiptoed, Harry crept, and Ron banged into chairs-- towards the exit.
Just as they emerged from the classroom, a cold statement arrested them. "Mr. Potter. Mr. Weasley. A word with you."
The three of them stopped just outside the doorway. Harry didn't know whether to feel apprehensive or wild with curiosity at this point.
"The Headmaster needs to discuss some important matters with you two," said Snape, staring down at the two of them as though this would surely lead to some sort of disembowelment.
Harry blinked. Before he could say anything, Ron burst out with, "But we haven't done anything!"
"What a fascinating statement, Mr. Weasley. Be that as it may, your presence is urgently required in the Headmaster's office right now. Come along. No, Miss Granger, your presence was not requested."
As Snape herded them along the corridor towards the stair to the Headmaster's office, Harry wondered just what the flying fewmets was going on.
Right on cue, the door swung open, and Ginny (as well as the two elder Weasleys) turned to face it. Harry Potter and Ron, shadowed by the glowering presence of Professor Snape, entered, looking bewildered.
She took a hesitant step toward the pair, a greeting on her lips, but then she recoiled, covering her nose. "Ugh! What's that smell?"
Harry peered at her for only a moment, and she saw splatters of something over the lenses of his glasses, and holes--one of them still smoking, she was sure of it--burnt in the front of his robe. There was a smear of something dark, mucky, and stiff up one side of his face that extended so far as to make half of his hair stand upright. He didn't answer, seemingly distracted by locating Dumbledore in the jumble of people in the room.
Ron, however, who was similarly, if not so extremely adorned, jerked his thumb over his shoulder at Snape and muttered, "Potions class." Then he focused on his sister. "Hey, Gin," he said loudly, "what're you all dressed up for like that? Pink roses look awful with your hair!"
Ginny felt like someone had taken a flyswatter to the butterflies that had, just moments before, frolicked cheerfully in her stomach. She looked down at the bouquet of small pink roses in her hands.
"Ah, Harry," Dumbledore was saying, "glad you could come. Thank you, Professor Snape, for bringing along our young rapscallion."
"It was," Snape replied through clenched teeth, "nothing at all."
"Please have a seat," Dumbledore said, gesturing to the array of chairs in the room.
Ginny sank slowly into one at the edge of the room. One of her roses turned back into a taffy and rolled out of the bouquet to hit the floor with a soft thud. Her parents sat together. McGonagall and Snape drifted to the back of the room. She watched as Harry sat down slowly in the chair set directly before Dumbledore.
"Now," the headmaster said, looking over his desk at the assemblage. "I'm sure you're all wondering why I called you here today." He seemed awfully amused by that, and his chuckles fell heedlessly into the silence. "Well, Harry, we have a serious problem." Dumbledore leaned forward, steepling his fingers. "We've received information that suggests that the school will be attacked by Death Eaters very soon. In extreme force."
"He's ready to attack?" Harry said, alarmed. "So soon?"
"I'm afraid so," Dumbledore replied. "While we're relatively certain we can protect you, our information suggests that most of the other students would likely be killed."
"Then... then... I have to leave Hogwarts!" Harry exclaimed, springing to his feet. "I have to go away, far away..."
"No, Harry," Dumbledore said, waving Harry back into his chair. "If you go away, you'll be killed. No question about it. Unless, of course, you went back to live with the Dursleys." He staved off another exclamation with a raised hand. "And that, too, is out of the question. You must be taught to use your magic, Harry, and therefore, you must stay at Hogwarts. No," the headmaster said with a sigh, "no, we have another solution." He looked at Ginny.
Everyone in the room looked at her. She fought, unsuccessfully, against the rising blush that she knew everyone could see. She smiled at Harry as best she could manage.
He looked alarmed.
"The charm that protects you at the Dursleys," Dumbledore went on mercifully as Mrs. Weasley pulled her wand out and surreptitiously changed the roses white, "protects you because you are with family. To extend the spell to you here at Hogwarts, you would need to have family here."
"You're not bringing Dudley..." Harry began, appalled.
"So we need to give you family, Harry," Dumbledore said, gesturing again at the Weasleys in general. "The oldest and strongest way to do so is through marriage."
Harry looked as though the Headmaster had just slapped him across the face with a wet, live fish. His mouth sagged open.
Ginny hid her face in one hand.
"Marriage?" Harry squeaked.
Ron apparently had wits on loan from the absent Hermione. "Aw, it'll be great, Harry! We'll be brothers! I've always thought of you like a brother! Now we really will be...!" He trailed off, looking around at the silence. "... Right?"
"Perfectly correct, Ron," Dumbledore said. "Miss Weasley has consented to become your bride, Harry. And you will have family at Hogwarts with you, and won't it just drive Voldemort mad to be suddenly unable to find Hogwarts?" The headmaster laughed.
"But... I'm..." Harry spluttered. "I'm too young! Right! Too young!"
Dumbledore waved a piece of paper that bore a short, handwritten message. "I have permission from the Dursleys here to, I quote, do anything I like with you, so long as they needn't see you again."
Harry looked around the room helplessly. McGonagall took pity on him after a moment and said, in a surprisingly gentle tone, "There's no help for it, I'm afraid, Potter. If you don't marry someone, all the students at Hogwarts might very well be killed."
They wanted him to what?
"Killed," Harry managed to choke out, focusing instead on the reason for this, this, this utterly unthinkable turn his life was taking.
"Yes, Harry," replied Dumbledore, leaning over the desk to peer soulfully into Harry's eyes. "And we have considerable reason to believe--" his gaze flicked over Harry's shoulder, presumably to Professor Snape-- "that even if we were to send you away, the attack on the school would happen anyway. We cannot afford for that to happen."
"No," replied Harry numbly. "No, I don't want anyone to be killed."
"So, this seemed like the best solution," Dumbledore said. "It will give you a connection to one of the oldest wizarding families in Britain, and one that's very fond of you besides!"
Right on cue, Mrs. Weasley gave a little sob. "Just think of it, part of our family."
"We're proud to do it," added Mr. Weasley.
Dumbledore looked at Ginny for some reason, but Harry was too occupied with gripping the arms of his chair to wonder why.
"Now," said Dumbledore practically. "I want you both to understand what this entails. You'll have to stay married, of course, at least until the end of the war. That doesn't mean that you have to, ah," he glanced over his glasses at the elder Weasleys, "be romantically involved--"
At that point, Harry's ears turned bright red and his brain fuzzed out. The phrase "conjugal relations" came up at least twice, but the utter agony of being lectured on the fact that they were too young for "marital duties" while in the same room with Ginny Weasley-- and her parents-- was simply too much to let him focus on the individual words.
Then came the ceremony. Harry never did remember much of it afterwards; he wondered at least once if Dumbledore had hit him with a surreptitious spell, or whether it was just shock. He supposed that this was what being drunk was like-- feeling incredibly clumsy and as though everything was about six inches to the left and through a curtain.
They had to mix their blood in a cup of something sweet-- fortunately the knife was so sharp it didn't hurt-- and drink from it-- and exchange rings produced from somewhere by Dumbledore, and McGonagall was standing behind Ginny, whispering her vows for her to repeat, and Dumbledore was standing in front of them, smiling benevolently (when he wasn't prompting Harry) and why did all this have to happen in the same room with Snape glaring behind him as though he'd just murdered the entire man's family and was on trial for his life?
Ron, who was standing as Harry's best man, had picked up the taffy from Ginny's bouquet and eaten it absentmindedly at some point during the ceremony. Unfortunately, it turned out to be, not taffy, but one of George and Fred's Lockjaw Lollies, which meant that he was considerably muffled when it came time for him to give his responses, and they had to resort to a sort of charades and a lot of vigorous nodding.
It all went by in a blur as Harry was prompted and prodded through the ceremony. He'd never really given much thought to getting married-- defeating dark lords and the usual adolescent crises tending to curtail much wondering about the future-- but he supposed that as he'd never been given much choice about any other aspect of his life, he shouldn't be so surprised not to be given any choice in this area, either.
Ron jabbed him in the side. Dumbledore was smiling benevolently again. Harry tried to focus, wondering what he had missed.
"...husband and wife." Dumbledore looked over his glasses at the pair and added pointedly, "You may kiss the bride, Harry."
Ginny's pulse pounded in her ears. There was a trickle of sweat running down the small of her back. McGonagall fed her the lines, and Ginny repeated them, word for word, as if casting a spell for the first time. In a sense, she thought, she was casting a spell. She was marrying Harry Potter to save all of Hogwarts.
"You may kiss the bride, Harry."
She caught her breath, unable to think for a moment. Hadn't this always been her secret dream? McGonagall gently steered her by one shoulder to face Harry. He was pale, and covered in potion goo, and smelled like... like many things that were very unpleasant. For the first time since he had come in, he met her gaze... really looked at her, and he fidgeted nervously with the sleeve of his charred robe.
Kissing Harry Potter was rather like kissing a slightly clammy stone statue. He pecked her on the lips briefly, and as she puzzled about how a human being could be so very cold to the touch, he turned away to face Dumbledore again.
She bit her lip and didn't dare look at anyone.
Dumbledore said, "Now, you both have to understand... no, the three of you must understand that no one must know of this marriage. Your rings are charmed to be invisible, and you must never take them off. And you must tell no one. If you did, the entire Weasley family would be in danger. Do you understand, Harry? Ginny?" The Headmaster fixed his gaze on her brother specifically. "Ron?"
They nodded. McGonagall and Snape, at that point, firmly collared both boys and escorted them from the room.
Mrs. Weasley took that opportunity to enfold Ginny in a most vigorous maternal embrace. "Ohhhhh, my little girl!" she wailed cheerfully as Ginny struggled for breath. The veil slipped from Ginny's head and fluttered to the floor, where it promptly reverted to parchment. Ginny glanced down and noticed that Harry's name was listed under Mr. Filch's latest set of detentions.
Dumbledore patted Ginny on the shoulder. "You've done a very good thing, Miss... Ginny. You should be proud."
There were several more awkward minutes. Ginny stroked the white silk regretfully just before McGonagall turned her wedding robes back to her more prosaic school clothes. Then she gathered up her books from the floor near the door. "Well, Mum, Dad. Goodbye, then."
Her father beamed at her. "You two should come to the house for dinner soon, eh?" He glanced aside at Dumbledore for confirmation.
"I think," said the Headmaster, as he stepped forward to Ginny, "that could be arranged." He set a small white rose, the last of the bouquet, atop her books. "Good evening, Ginny."
Out in the hallway, she picked up the rose and sniffed it. It smelled like a rose, not a lemon drop or a caramel.
Harry felt Ron tug at his arm. They were walking along a corridor, and Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape were walking behind them. He seemed to have left his feet somewhere. He couldn't focus. When he reached up, his glasses were on his face.
"Are you all right?" asked Ron.
"No," replied Harry distantly.
"Um," said Ron.
Behind them, Harry could hear a half-whispered conversation. "...have my doubts as to whether the spell can be extended in this manner. The children are at risk!" hissed Snape.
"Yes, well, and I do not approve of interfering in their lives in this way, but there were no other viable alternatives. The children would be far more at risk if we did nothing." McGonagall's accent became, as it tended to do in times of stress, far more Scots. "Ye'll do better to mind your own part in that which is to come!"
"I beg your pardon," Snape replied coldly.
"Granted," said McGonagall grandly, and then seemed to realize that the two boys ahead of them were listening to the conversation. "Back to Gryffindor with the both of you." She swept ahead of Snape and herded the two boys back to Gryffindor tower.
As they emerged through the portrait, Hermione descended upon them, aquiver with questions. McGonagall took one look at her and said, "Mr. Weasley, you'll get Mr. Potter to his room. He's had enough shocks for one day. Come with me, Miss Granger."
Ron steered Harry to his bed, where Harry sat down and stared at the wall.
"Are you all right, mate?" asked Ron again.
"No," said Harry again.
Ron sat on his own bed, opposite, and thumped the bed with his hands, looking worried.
Harry sat there, then fell over sideways to stare at his canopy.
Ron watched him for a while, then tugged Harry's shoes off, closed the bed curtains, and tiptoed out, tripping over Neville's shoes on the way.
Dinner in the Great Hall that night was rather a surreal experience. Ginny was never entirely sure, but she could have sworn that Dumbledore stared at her throughout the meal. And so did McGonagall, but in that case, at least, she knew it was a sort of benevolent worry. And then there was Snape. She tried to ignore him.
Her ring kept clinking against her goblet.
Harry spent the evening and night dreaming that he had to marry various people. Usually it was various students from his classes-- Susan Bones, Lisa Turpin, Millicent Bulstrode. Sometimes it was teachers. He dreamed he was marrying Professor McGonagall, or Dumbledore. Once he dreamed he was marrying Draco Malfoy, but Draco ran away and joined a circus, much to his relief. People kept grabbing his arm and dragging him off to marry someone else, because unless he did it, various horrible things would happen. Once he dreamed that if he could just find the right person to marry, Sirius would be alive again. Then he dreamed that he was marrying Rita Skeeter. He kept turning around to find out that he was marrying yet another person without knowing it again and again all right-- Professor Flitwick, Penelope Clearwater, Tonks, and finally a last dream in which he was marrying Professor Snape, who was wearing a dress and a vulture hat. He woke up from that one screaming.
Fortunately, his roommates were used to him waking up screaming.
He then discovered that not only had he slept in all his clothes and school robes, but that his arm-- the one people had been dragging him about by all night-- was stiff because at some point during the ceremony the afternoon before he had apparently shoved his wand up his sleeve and forgot it. Even after he removed his wand, he couldn't bend his elbow properly.
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